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What is it about our favorite food that makes it our favorite? Taste. Our sense of taste is the reason we like or don’t like certain foods. We might enjoy textures and temperatures of food, but our sense of taste is the powerful force that drives us to eat certain foods and not others. We each have approximately 9000 taste buds, and when triggered by food, they send signals to our brains as to whether a food is sweet, salty, sour, bitter or umami.

Sweet seems to be the most powerful of all the tastes. It’s my favorite! It makes ordinary foods extraordinary, but it is added to most prepackaged items in the form of processed sugar. If consumed too much, it can lead to health problems like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, weakened immune system, tooth decay, hyperactivity, acne and more. For more information on the sweet stuff, I recommend the 2014 movie “Fed Up” with Katie Couric, which was recently released on Netflix.

Salt can make all the difference in the world for some dishes. All of the other tastes can be enhanced with a little salt added. But too much salt can cause an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, fluid retention and damage to the kidneys.

Sour is the taste that reveals acidity. Think tart, tangy, and things that make your mouth pucker up; lemons, limes, cilantro, rhubarb, cherries, berries, vinegar, and fermented foods such as kimchi, miso, kombucha, and sauerkraut. Sour foods help us digest and absorb the nutrients we eat. Not too many of us overindulge on sour, but it can affect the enamel on our teeth. However, brushing teeth after a meal can take care of this.

Bitter is probably the most under-used and misunderstood of all the tastes. Bitter foods can be SO beneficial! They include most dark leafy greens; kale, collards, swiss chard, spinach, mustard and dandelion greens, and some of the bitter lettuces, like arugula, and radicchio. These have an incredible domino effect on our bodies when eaten.  Bitter foods send a message to the liver to wake up and start bile production, which aids in the digestive process by speeding up the metabolism.  This helps us to avoid bloating and maintain regularity. Bitter foods also assist us with weight loss and have been linked to the reduction of many diseases, including cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.*

Umami is the taste I learned about in culinary school. It’s that delicious taste that comes from caramelized onions, sautéed mushrooms, or a pot of rich, full-flavored pasta sauce. Umami is a result of foods that are made well and it brings complexity to a meal and delight to our tongues.

When we are eating a diet full of real, whole foods, our sweet and salt intake will be low because we’re able to enjoy the different flavors that are naturally in the foods we’re eating.  We will also be getting a good balance of sour and bitter, and enjoying umami. However, if our diet is full of pre-packaged, convenient meals and/or frequent fast foods, our sugar and sodium levels will be much higher. Sweet and salty foods have a time and a place but should be enjoyed minimally. I encourage my clients to focus on bitter and sour tastes as these, by far, have the most health benefits. The next time you’re making a meal, try to include more natural tastes for better health!

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